Lice. The word itself sends a shiver down the spines of parents and elementary school teachers alike. But, in our adult lives, unless we have children, we don’t seem to come into contact with these creepy bugs that often. But, can dogs get lice? Read on to find out…
What Are Lice?
Lice, the plural of a louse, is the name for insects in the order Phthiraptera, an order that contains 5,000 species of wingless insects. Lice are obligate parasites that live on warm-blooded hosts. They live among the hairs or feathers of their host, sustaining themselves by eating the skin and sucking on the blood of their host. Bon appetit!
Full-grown lice are the size of a sesame seed and can be seen with the naked eye. Interestingly enough, lice usually spend their entire life cycle on one host. They lay their eggs, the children are born, they mature, and they die all in about four weeks. Depending on how long lice go unnoticed, you could be host to multiple generations!
Lice Eggs and Lice Nits
Female lice are more common than male lice and oddly enough, babies can hatch from unfertilized eggs. Louse eggs are called lice nits and are extremely hard to get rid of.
The trouble with lice is they lay a huge quantity of eggs and attach them to their host’s fur, near the scalp. In order to cement a nit to a host’s fur, a louse uses a special saliva they secrete which bonds the egg to the fur. This bond is difficult to break without using products designed to break the bond.
When nits are alive, they are a pale, white color whereas dead louse eggs or lice nits are more yellow-ish in color. However, it’s difficult to catch them all seeing as lice lay a huge quantity of eggs and hide them well.
What Do Lice Look Like?
There are actually two kinds of lice, sucking lice and chewing lice. Sucking lice are the kind we are most familiar with because head lice fall into this category.
Sucking lice are small, wingless, and about the size of a sesame seed (this is about 0.02 inches to 0.20 inches). They have oval, flat bodies with narrow heads. They have short antennae and six legs, each with a claw at the tip.
Chewing lice can be slightly larger in size and grow up to 0.24 inches long. Chewing lice tend to have larger heads. They have short legs with one or two claws at the ends.
Since there are so many different kinds of lice on so many different species of mammals, there is a wide variety in the coloring of a louse. A louse can be pale beige or dark gray in color but, when feeding on blood, their color gets noticeably darker. Many have evolved with their host of choice to match the host’s fur. For example, the head lice that we all enjoyed so much in elementary school are translucent in color, so as to easily hide in plain sight.
Can Dogs Get Lice?
Do you want the good news or the bad news? The bad news is, yes, dogs can get lice. The good news is, you can’t get lice from your dog and they can’t get them from you. Lice are specific to species. They evolved for one specific host so, the lice that like to live in human hair have no interest in taking a bite of your pup. But, dogs can get lice because there are lice that are dog specific.
Now, generally speaking, lice are not common in dogs that are well fed, healthy, and clean. Instead, lice are commonly found on malnourished dogs that are not cared for. But, keep in mind, it is possible for lice to affect even the most well-kept dogs.
Causes of Lice in Dogs
The same way these parasites transmit themselves human to human, lice are transferred between dogs through contact with contaminated items. This kind of contact happens in locations in which a lot of dogs are congregated, like animal shelters, kennels, groomers, and dog parks.
Also, if your pup shares a bed, furniture, or an outdoor space with another dog with lice, the risk of it being passed to your dog is greater.
It’s recommended that if your dog has lice, you quarantine your pup to stop the parasites from spreading to other dogs. You can still take your dog on walks but not in high volume areas where they could come into contact with a lot of other dogs.
After about 4 weeks of treatment, your pup is free to play with all their friends again! I know 4 weeks sounds like a long time but lice are great at hiding. Nits stay hidden in fur and keep hatching so you have to keep treatment going until the nits are completely gone!
Dog Lice: How to Tell If Your Pup Has Lice
By now you’re probably thinking, this is all great but how can I tell if my dog has lice? The first symptom you will notice is excessive scratching. When you inspect your dog’s coat, you will see small, tan lice near the skin. You may also see lice nits present but these are difficult to see with the naked eye.
The extreme itchiness of the lice will cause a dog to lick, rub, and chew at the infected areas. Bare patches of skin will be seen that have been chewed away due to the itchiness, skin redness, and inflammation.
A dog’s coat will also become matted and coarse when infested with lice. The bonding saliva lice use to secure their eggs to hair follicles leads to this matting of the hair.
In severe cases, dogs with lice also become lethargic and lose weight.
Symptoms of Lice in Dogs
- Excessive scratching
- Raw skin
- Hair loss around ears, shoulders, genitals
- Small infections
- Rough, matted coat
- Dry Coat
- In severe cases, anemia
Lice vs Dandruff in Dogs
Now, don’t go getting worried if you have an itchy pup. As we all know, dogs scratch, it’s what they do. But if the scratching is excessive, it’s always a good idea to take a closer look.
Lice in dogs and dandruff in dogs are often confused as dandruff also causes scratching and dryness. That is why it’s important to be able to tell the difference!
The part that causes confusion is the nits. Upon first inspection, nits may look a lot like dandruff, especially if they are already hatched. Once a nit has hatched, they leave behind empty shells that look a lot like dandruff. Use a flea comb to collect from areas you are concerned about so you can better examine if they are flakes or nits.
The best way to tell the difference between dandruff and lice in dogs is to shake the dog’s fur. If the flakes fall out, it’s dandruff. If they stick to the hair, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with lice nits.
Lice vs Fleas in Dogs
Fleas are much more common than lice and most of us have experience dealing with them. Symptoms are similar, although they are much more severe when dealing with lice. Luckily, there are some ways to tell the difference!
The color of the insects is the first clue. Lice tend to be light tan or medium brown while fleas are much darker, closer to a black color. The second way to tell is speed. Lice are slow moving while fleas are quick to dart out of sight before you are sure you even saw one!
Yep, you guessed it, cats can also get lice. Of course, these lice are different than dog lice since lice evolve specifically for their host. The kind of lice that infects cats is called Felicola Subrostrata and the symptoms are mostly the same as in dogs.
Cat lice either spreads from direct contact or contact with contaminated objects. Symptoms include excessive scratching, a dry, rough coat, and missing patches of fur.
How to Get Rid of Dog Lice
Treatment of lice in dogs is pretty straightforward but also, it isn’t easy. Reinfection is always a risk but, luckily, there is a lot you can do to prevent this.
Reinfection is a concern because, if you decide to use a pharmaceutical approach, it will only kill the adult lice. Nits are not susceptible to insecticides and will remain on your dog until they hatch. This is because a nit is encased in an egg that nothing can penetrate. This is why it’s important you complete treatment on your pup, to kill all the generations of lice that are present. Nits generally hatch in 1-2 weeks and become an adult within 2-3 weeks. As long as you keep up treatment every week for four weeks, the lice should be gone.
The usual treatment for lice in dogs involves insecticides such as flea shampoos that have organophosphates or pyrethrins. There are also topical options like Advantage that can be applied every two weeks and kills lice as well as fleas. An important thing to remember if you are dealing with a lice infestation is to treat all pets in the household as well to ensure it doesn’t spread.
Another important step in the treatment of dog lice is to wash all infected areas. All bedding should be washed as well as anything that your dog has come into contact with. This could involve a lot for your home so be sure to deeply clean and vacuum so you can get rid of any lice. Lice can live off of a host for up to four days so decontaminating your home is very important.
As mentioned before, keep your pet quarantined while under treatment so they don’t infect other animals. They are free to go back to their regular social life in about 4 weeks!
There are many pharmaceutical options for treating lice in dogs. Monthly flea and tick preventatives your dog may already be on also prevent lice. But, if your dog is experiencing an outbreak, flea shampoos and insecticides are recommended. There are many sprays, shampoos, and powders that kill lice.
Lice Killing Shampoos
The first pharmaceutical option is a lice shampoo. These shampoos contain different ingredients so here’s a breakdown of the more common ingredients.
Pyrethrins are harvested from chrysanthemum flowers and are successful in killing a wide range of insects. In fact, it is an ingredient in many flea medications. It works by stimulating an insect’s nervous system, leading to death.
Pyrethrin is a common ingredient in pesticides.
S-methoprene uses a hormone-like substance to prevent fleas from completing their life cycle. It basically prevents lice from procreating so is seen as less of a poison. It is used to kill many insects, including fleas.
Sulfurated lime is a very stinky shampoo that was originally developed to kill bacteria on trees until it was discovered it’s effective in getting rid of lice on dogs. Unfortunately, it smells really bad, like rotten eggs. It may also stain the fur of light colored pets.
Here are some other treatments for dogs with lice that are a bit stronger.
Ivermectin is a very strong medication given by injection. It is prescribed by a vet and used to kill a wide range on insects, even heartworms. It can have a lot of really bad side effects which are also detailed below.
This is a similar medication to ivermectin but it is much safer and found in the typical flea treatment Revolution. You will also need a prescription from a vet for this medication.
Fipronil has been around since the ’80s and is used in many common flea medications. It is safe for both dogs and cats and kills insects for a month following treatment.
Since lice can live off a host for an extended period of time, treating your house with an insecticide may be necessary. There are products such as RIP fleas, Nuvan, or Acclaim. These sprays work for several months so all nits will be killed with just one treatment. However, these are very strong chemicals and if you have birds, fish, or other small animals they can cause death.
Many of these options, especially a shampoo with pyrethrin can be toxic to cats. So, if you have a cat at home use extreme caution!
Also, using high levels of these medications can cause dogs to vomit and develop weakness if used in too high a dosage.
Ivermectin can have very serious side effects and in some breeds, it can lead to death.
As with all chemical treatments, there can be side effects. Every pup is different but starting off slow and working your way up with dosage is a good way to start. Most side effects will really be present in high dosages.
If you want to start treatment on your pup chemical free, there are ways to do that too! First of all, make sure to clean your home to get rid of all those pesky lice. After that, they are quite a few options.
Lice and Nit Comb
You can use a lice and nit comb to remove the lice. Yep, you physically comb through your pet’s hair and remove them with this very narrow comb. Doing this will definitely take a long time and be a lot of work. It is, of course, an easier option for someone with a short-haired pup. Be sure to be extremely thorough and focus attention on areas like the groin, armpits, and ears.
It will be necessary to do this daily for four to six weeks in order to remove the lice as well as the nits.
Once you remove the lice, make sure to kill them by boiling them in water so they don’t run amuck in your home!
Lavender is a great and natural antiseptic. A few drops applied onto a cotton ball and rubbed on your dog’s skin will be very helpful. Just make sure there are no open wounds. You can also mix lavender in with your dog’s shampoo.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is used as an anti-parasitic and an antibacterial. It helps fight infections and is also a natural remedy used for fleas. Mixing in five drops of oil with your dog’s usual shampoo is a good start.
Artemisia can be an effective insecticide against lice. It’s a plant that is used for medications throughout history and is chocked full of essential oils. You can soak a cotton ball in it and apply directly to affected areas on your dog.
You may know citronella from its mosquito fighting abilities. This repellent can also be helpful in getting rid of lice. Just mix fresh citronella in a half pint of boiling water and then let it cool. Filter it and soak it onto a cotton ball, then rub it into your pup’s coat!
Time For A Haircut!
Lastly, you could always give your furry friend a new hairstyle! Shaving your pup and getting rid of excess fur will make it easier to get to the root (literally) of the infection. Lice like to hide out in long hair so removing their hiding place is a great start. This will also make the nits easier to access, as they live at the base of the hair. Using a lice comb thoroughly should be an easier and more effective task with less hair present.
How to Prevent Lice in Dogs
Lice are spread through direct contact. Scary, but not a reason to keep your pup locked up at home! There are plenty of ways to make sure your dog is safe from these itchy bugs.
If you frequently take your dog to a daycare or dog parks where there is contact with other dogs, yes, there’s a risk. But there are also preventative measures you can take.
- Always provide your dog with a clean living environment. Dogs that are mistreated, abandoned, or kept in horrible conditions are more prone to lice. If you are reading this article, I doubt that is you. Wash bedding and vacuum regularly and give your dog’s living space some love.
- Help your dog keep a strong immune system by implementing a high-quality diet. The healthier the pet, the less likely of a lice infection.
- Give your dog lots of regular baths and keep them well groomed.
- Make sure your groomer sterilizes their equipment.
- If your dog is out and about on a play date, keep them away from stray dogs or dogs that look malnourished and unkempt, as these could be carriers of lice.
- Make sure the dog park is sanitary and kept up.
- When not going into the groomer, give your dog routine baths, up to once a week.
- Regularly comb your dog’s coat
Can Dogs Get Lice: A Final Thought
Overall, lice are gross and a nuisance but, if your dog comes into contact with them, there is a lot you can still do. And, a lot of options are holistic and non-chemical, which we love! It’s important to take your dog to a vet (while being careful to keep them away from other dogs) and get a medical opinion. But, holistic options definitely work. Plus, the truth of the matter is, if you have your dog on flea medication, they are also protected from lice.
Just like your child isn’t dirty if they catch lice at school, your dog getting lice from another dog at the dog park doesn’t mean you are a bad dog parent. It can be an inevitable side effect of playing outside. The most important thing is to pay attention to your pooch and taking in the warning signs, check it out, confirm you aren’t dealing with fleas or dandruff, and then get to work on whatever approach you take to get rid of the lice.
Time and patience is the only solution for lice, even with insecticides and medication. But, with a little work and a lot of love your pup will be as good as new soon!